As normality returns post-pandemic, many businesses that pivoted to e-commerce during the crisis face a question: do we pivot back? Restaurants that went delivery-only, retailers who moved online and businesses who transitioned to remote working have now reopened their doors. They’ve gained some momentum in their new direction, lockdown has ended, capacity restrictions have eased, and physical premises are suddenly open again.

For some businesses, it’s seen as a binary choice of which delivery mode business to commit to. Do they shut down online and stick with what they know, forgoing all the effort put into e-commerce? Or do they downscale their physical stores or office space and stay virtual?

There are three choices that businesses can make as they align navigate a post-pandemic world:

Choice 1: Pivoting back

The natural move for many organisations may be to revert to pre-COVID activities. It’s what they’ve always done and what they’re used to.

Some services simply make best sense as bricks-and-mortar, such as fitness, recreation, and many entertainment and event businesses. People want to get back to the gym. Online yoga has its place, but it can’t fully replicate the experience of a physical class. Virtual music events and concerts will struggle to compete with the atmosphere and immediacy of experiencing live events with other people.

Choice 2: Staying online

Consumer behaviour has undergone what is widely considered to be a permanent shift. Once people have experienced the convenience of doing or buying certain things online, they’re unlikely to want to do this physically again. Categories that previously lagged with ecommerce adoption, such as Grocery, Liquor and Health and Beauty, are now much stronger and will likely continue to be so.

As McKinsey notes, while a preference for online entertainment is “probably temporary”, the surge in ecommerce as well as remote working and telehealth are likely to endure.

Choice 3: Going multichannel

For businesses that can maintain both channels, this is a potentially huge growth opportunity. There’s a myth that in a post-COVID world you need to back one horse. But the organisations who will thrive and grow are those who are willing to take the leap and pursue both strategies – where it makes sense to do so. The advantage with a two-pronged business is that some cost base will straddle both sides of the business, creating an advantage over competitors who are one single-pronged. It is also helpful to remember that commerce is commerce, no matter the method of mode of how it happens.

But many SMEs fear they’re taking on too much. They’re unsure how to reconcile business A with business B. It may be that B doesn’t generate enough cash to fund the continuation of both. There’s a lack of knowledge around leverage, debt and how to finance operations.

The post-pandemic learning curve

Moving forward post-pandemic involves a steep learning curve. There’s a whole bunch of people jumping into the e-commerce space, using Wix, Shopify, Squarespace and other platforms. They want to know how they can customise their digital storefront and make it fit more closely with their brand. How should they position each product on which page and what should be bundled with other products to maximise a particular customer journey?

Most SMEs are still at the infancy of exploring the e-commerce world, compared to giants like Amazon who have had over two decades to finesse this. Although consumers may have “adopted a decade in days” when it comes to digital, businesses are unlikely to be fully adept with commerce in the digital landscape as quickly.

So, while the first phase of going digital was a necessity curve, as many companies had no choice but to get from A to B, now they must learn to do it on a racetrack. The winners and losers will be sorted by who gets to grips with best practice most quickly, leveraging data and telemetry to do it as well as, or even better than, as the big guns do.

Achieving the best of both worlds

Experience is everything: consumers no longer must use e-commerce as a necessity, so they need a reason to do so. Businesses will have to figure out how to generate the same value and customer loyalty with online that bricks-and-mortar does. For many businesses, this comes back the fundamental question of how you add value to customers and working out the role (in many cases different but complimentary) that digital stores play in building out customer value.

For example, a recent exercise with a traditional niche retailer found that the average basket size for online sales was significantly smaller than the historical level in bricks and mortar: $15 rather than $60. The business wanted to know why, and how to increase online order size. The answer comes from thinking about the nature of the purchase journey. E-commerce in the absence of a lockdown environment where customers may have had more time on hand are generally not as exploratory as the ‘in the moment’ prompts that happen in a physical store: it’s often a more linear engagement with purposeful search.

Consumers are less likely to browse other products as they might do in a physical store, be mentally prompted by walking past a staple that they suddenly remember is finished or be attracted by impulse buys. An online chocolate bar – where you have to wait for delivery – is less tempting than a physical one right in front of you at checkout! The solution to the basket size differential is to think through how the business can frame and position products in easily visible spaces, or to have a dynamic ability to present tangential products that are related to the original reason the shopper visited the site.

One option for dual-strategy businesses is to use physical stores to convert people to their brand, then mining loyal customers digitally. This allows the business to add value through convenience for products they know. Perhaps online subscriptions for a monthly basket can turn into an annuity model. Something else to consider is that some products may be more viable online only, and can be offered as “online exclusives”, driving more value and differentiation from the e-commerce arm.

It is also worth considering that the pandemic has introduced a new (and typically older) demographic to the world of online retail, with substantial implications for digital marketing efforts, targeting, product line-ups and user experience in a digital store.

Ultimately, businesses shouldn’t simply switch off their e-commerce store just because people are walking through the door again. Convenience isn’t the only thing that matters. Bricks-and-mortar is a more sensory and human-engaged experience. There’s an opportunity to double-down on the physical retail experience and make it even more exclusive, sensory and enriched. With some businesses moving to ecommerce only, there may even be a vacuum for others to create a much richer, more premium, face-to-face experience.

Ryan Williams is the Playford Professor of Business Growth at the Australian Centre for Business Growth, part of UniSA Business.